Another Lib Dem Conference, another set of exceptional debates on policing and justice. We agreed on greater accountability through an empowered IPCC; minimum standards for private contractors; and community sentences and restorative justice in place of ineffective, short-term prison sentences.
Our party has the most distinct strategy for crime reduction of any major party. It’s based on clear, liberal principles and, crucially, it’s based on the evidence staring us right in the face. At every Conference I’ve been to we raise the level of debate, and provide liberal solutions for policing and justice.
Rarely do these debates, and these policies, make it in to the public sphere. Conference has a larger public profile than in the past, but newspapers seem somewhat reluctant to tell our story of lower crime through rehabilitation, a transparent police service through tougher regulation and policing by consent by ending indiscriminate powers.
But in my experience, the louder we shout about liberal policing, the more support we get. This is especially true when we connect our solutions to problems which people face every day, in every part of the country.
Last week a police officer in Lancashire was forced to apologise for using a Taser on a blind man whose stick was mistaken for a sword. Who would stop this from happening? The Liberal Democrats are the only party which has called for controls over Tasers.
In 2008-11, an officer in the West Midlands was 28 times more likely to stop and search a black person than a white person, in Greater Manchester it was 21 times and in the Met 11 times. And an officer was 10 times more likely to stop Asian Britons than a white person. Who fought against these indiscriminate powers, and are now stopping their use in Government? Only the Liberal Democrats stand against stop and search.
And what about crime levels and justice costs? Only the Liberal Democrats have a clear, independent plan for reducing crime in every area, and cutting costs from the justice system through community justice measures, and fewer prison sentences.
In 2010, the National Audit Office showed that a 12 month prison sentence costs the state £40,000, yet 45% of those jailed for 12 months or less reoffend within a year. We know that this is an appalling failure based on outdated policies, to which the other Parties remain committed. Compare that to the community justice panels in, for example, Lib Dem controlled South Somerset, where reoffending rates are just 3% and victim satisfaction is 97%.
Best of all, we’re already delivering reforms at the national level. The Government’s rehabilitation revolution will cut costs, reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders. And we’ve reduced draconian stop and search powers; between 2010 and 2011 stop and search under terrorism legislation, which we changed and restricted, fell by 90%.
We have an unparalleled arsenal of liberal policy, a strong track record in Government, and a unique solution to policing and crime in every force area.
Whether or not you support them, on November 15th every citizen will have the chance to elect a new Police and Crime Commissioner (PCCs) in each of these areas. They will be responsible for cutting crime and delivering their police service. PCCs will also be expected to set local policing priorities, hold chief constables and the force to account and ensure community needs are met.
Most importantly, PCC candidates will air their views and their opinions in public between now and election time, and they will shape every citizen’s views of policing between now and 2015. They will do so through bottom-up campaigning at the local level, the likes of which the public hasn’t seen when it comes to local policing.
It would be an absolutely travesty for the public to be closed off from the liberal choice: to be told by Tory and Labour alike that new police powers, tougher sentences and punitive punishment are the only solution to crime. Right now, across the country, millions of people know that there is a lack of access to justice, criminals reoffend and victims are ill-treated. We have the solutions to every one of these problems, and we’re the only Party that does.
I can’t imagine anything worse than hearing nothing but Labour and Tory candidates bang on about the need for punitive sentences, or the ‘war’ on drugs or the need for new police powers. To have to watch them try and outdo each other with increasingly authoritarian justice policies without there being a strong, rational, liberal out there in every force area to expose their prejudiced half-truths, is a galling prospect for liberals everywhere.
The recent debate over whether we opt in or out of certain European policing and justice measures illustrates the point. The Tories want to opt out because of prejudice towards Europe. Labour are too scared to oppose for fear of looking weak on Europe and weak on policing. The Liberal Democrats have looked at the evidence, and we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with our European allies and police chiefs to fight cross-border crime with cross-border solutions. A recent YouGov shows the public supports this: 77% of the British public support cooperation with the EU in counter-terrorism and fighting crime.
There is an immense risk that, if we don’t ground these debates with sensible, liberal messages, they will swing to the right, and shape local views of crime and policing now and in the future, through to 2015.
Every single Party Member should recognise the unique stance we have, the huge benefit our policies could bring to Britain, and the opportunity we have to sell those policies and shape the debate this November.
So let’s fight these elections. Let’s fight them because we know we are right, and because in the long-term, we know we will be proved right. Regressive policing measures have failed. Justice needs reform. Only we have the answer. I, for one, will be on the doorstep making that case. I hope as many of you as possible will join me.
* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15